The West End Bakery & Café’s new owners revive a 22-year-old neighborhood institution with a nod to tradition, fresh ideas…and irresistible doughnuts
It would be hyperbolic to say that The West End Bakery & Café’s doughnuts have a cult following. But it’s inarguable that whenever a closeup of one of their daily creations is posted on Instagram, it garners a lot of love. Which makes Stephanie Hand — who bought the Haywood Road culinary landmark in January 2023 with her partner, Donnie Hutchins — marvel that a baking experiment could produce such sweet serendipity.
“We did not intend to do doughnuts,” says Hand. “But our bake team had some extra dough one day and decided to try a doughnut. Unfortunately, it turned out great. They tried a few more, they sold really well, and it was all downhill from there.”
Hand has tongue firmly in cheek as she tells The West End doughnut origin story but is very serious as she explains what led her and Hutchins to commit to the beloved West Asheville bakery. First opened in July 2001 by Cathy Cleary and Krista Stearns, the bakery was purchased by Cary Hitchcock and Catherine McConachie in 2015. The second owners stayed the course, struggling through Covid and ramping up wholesale breads and baked goods; a re-conception of small plates, pizza, and wine had mixed results.
Hand and Hutchins, trained culinary chefs with a combined 50 years of experience, have cooked around the world and coast to coast. In 2019, they decided to settle in a small city near family and mountains and chose West Asheville. “We walked Haywood nearly every day and saw opportunity in that building,” says Hand. “We learned what an important place it had always had in the community.”
Even before the ink was dry on the lease (Cleary and Stearns are still the landlords), the couple were able to get in the building, clean, redecorate, and paint the exterior the original deep purple. Hand researched the bakery’s history, dug deep into its “granola glory days,” and heard dozens of very personal West End Bakery stories.
Hand and Hutchins opened the shop as The West End Bakery & Café the second week of January with the goal of restoring neighborhood trust and merging the original vibe with their expertise, experience, and knowledge, expressed through baked goods and global comfort food.
The pair hit the ground running with the existing wholesale business and developed a Hawaiian roll for Huli Sue’s BBQ & Grill, which had been using King’s Hawaiian brand. “We said let us make you a better, fresher, local bun. We would love to do that for other local restaurants who want to specialize in a particular bread or baked good,” says Hand.
The West End’s retail bread line includes multigrain sourdough, sourdough sandwich bread, cracked whole wheat sandwich bread and boule, traditional challah, Hawaiian challah, and milk bread, the foundation of the café’s popular breakfast sandwich.
Having conquered doughnuts, the bake team experimented with bagels. “I was thinking this better not be one of those bready, cakey bagels, and it was not,” says Hand. “I believe we have the best bagels in town, and we’ll stage a bagel-off to prove it.”
On the pastry side, the cruffin is another big winner: a circular croissant filled with vanilla crème Anglaise, dipped in dark chocolate and cacao nibs for texture, dusted with edible 24-karat gold flakes. “We make those every day, but not a ton,” she says. “Our goal is to sell out every day. We don’t do day-old anything.”
Doughnut devotees should not get too attached to any one of the eight or so flavors The West End does daily. “We rotate those out all the time,” Hand says. “We’ve probably done a couple hundred flavors since we opened.”
Whatever the color, flavor, sprinkle, or topping, every doughnut gets a hole on top, the center of the doughnut normally sold separately or tossed. It’s become a signature, as well as a good-natured running joke. “We see so many moms who buy donuts for their kids, but they claim the hole,” says Hand.
Aside from the doughnuts, the cruffins, the bagels, and the Hawaiian bread, what long-time West Enders wanted to know was: What about the big-as-your-head cinnamon roll, the longstanding calling card and iconic offering of the original bakery? “Right away there was controversy,” Hand says with a laugh. “People wanted to know if it was the exact same recipe as the original, and we had to tell them it is not. But this one has been tasted and approved by Cathy and Krista, so we feel confident people will love it as much.”
For more on The West End Bakery & Café, visit thewestendasheville.com.
Written Kay West
Photo courtesy of The West End Bakery & Café